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Kit helps homeless survive in winter

TORONTO, ON—Toronto’s winter will feel less harsh for the homeless who receive a Project Winter Survival kit.

“If they get a new backpack and a new sleeping bag, it’s like giving them a million bucks,” says Lenny Whelan, pastor at Street Connection Christian Church, one of the ministries which hands out the kits. “It’s like a new start for them.”

Street Connection has taken part in the survival kit distribution since it began. They usually hand out between 35 to 50 backpacks filled with things a person needs to survive the winter: hats, scarves, gloves, toiletries, linens and even a deck of cards.

“They don’t expect half the stuff that’s in there,” says Whelan. “They could end up having a complete change of clothes in there.”

Project Winter Survival rose out of Project Warmth, an effort by Toronto business leaders to solicit and distribute donations of sleeping bags.

“They ran into a problem,” says Project Winter Survival’s Jody Steinhauer. “They ran out of sleeping bags. They had to find a way to buy sleeping bags and came to me.”

Describing herself as an “entrepreneurial philanthropist,” the president and founder of the Bargains Group saw a problem larger than the need for sleeping bags. Eventually she combined company and compassion and began Project Winter Survival.

“An epiphany moment for me was when a woman at Covenant House told me how they always needed socks and had to go and buy them. I saw that I could provide them with socks at 80 per cent of the cost.”

Throughout the year, Steinhauer leverages the relationships the Bargains Group has with suppliers to get the supplies for the kits, e.g. asking the supplier of the 50,000 ski gloves the company bought to donate another 3,000. And she seeks cash donations to buy the items that haven’t been donated.

In December, agencies are contacted and send in applications for kits. Last year, agencies asked for a total of 12,000 kits but Project Winter Survival was only able to provide 2,500. This year, the target is 3,000.

Between 100 and 150 volunteers put the kits together in a donated warehouse during two weekends in January and then deliver the completed kits to the agencies.

“We’ve been asked to go national,” says Steinhauer. “I run two businesses already so I’m trying to figure out how to take this model and roll it out across the country.”

For more information check projectwintersurvival.org.